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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 3, No. 1
April 1998

Promoting Resiliency in Yourself

In other articles in this issue we have considered resiliency as it applies to helping families and children, but how does it apply to social workers and other helping professionals? Why is it that some talented, caring professionals only last a year or two, while others are still going strong at retirement?


In order to talk about this kind of resiliency, it is helpful to define it's opposite—burnout. Burnout leads to cynicism, decreased productivity, and general unhappiness. But what exactly is burnout, and what are its causes?

Burnout has been defined many ways. Maslach and Jackson (1986) define it as a "syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do `people work' of some kind." A broader definition is "a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding" (Pines & Aronson, 1988).

Burnout can also be described as occurring in stages. The first stage involves an imbalance between resources and demands. The second stage consists of immediate, short-term emotional tension, fatigue, and exhaustion. The third stage consists of a number of changes in attitude and behavior, such as a tendency to treat clients in a detached and mechanical fashion, or a cynical preoccupation with gratifying one's own needs (Chernis, 1980). See "Symptoms of Burnout".

Job Characteristics

Some jobs are more prone to burnout than others. When performance expectations and roles are unclear, the risk of burnout increases. Role conflict—for example, when a worker must act both as a legal authority and a helping professional—is also related to burnout. High case loads are another contributing factor, as are lack of autonomy, inadequate feedback, monotony, lack of participation in decision-making, and lack of responsibility. Poor opportunity to use skills and poor physical work conditions have also been found to be related to burnout.

Organizational factors contribute as well. These include bureaucratic organizations and emotionally demanding relationships with clients. Poor team cohesion and interpersonal conflicts at work also contribute to burnout (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1996).

Personal Characteristics

Are some individuals more prone to burnout than others? Many studies have found that single people have an increased risk of burning out compared to those who are living with a partner (Maslach & Jackson, 1985). It may be that social support from the partner alleviates stress. However, it is interesting to note that stress at work exacerbates stress in marriages and vice versa—marital conflict affects job performance (Jayaratne et al., 1986).

Several personality traits have been associated with decreased worker resiliency. One of the strongest links is to a trait known as external locus of control—the feeling that forces outside yourself are responsible for what happens in your life. Poor resistance to stress (lack of hardiness), type A behavior, poor personal control, anxiety traits, and poor self-esteem have all been found to be associated with burnout (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1996).


Can anything be done to decrease the occurrence of burnout? Yes!

On an individual level, time management, physical training, dieting, and increasing one's social skills—particularly assertiveness—have been recommended to combat burnout. Utilizing techniques such as a deep muscle relaxation, mental relaxation, and mental imagery are considered to be effective for relieving stress (Maslach, 1982).

However, self-improvement alone is not enough. It is necessary to focus on the workplace as well as the individual. Because burnout leads to decreased productivity and effectiveness, and because turnover is disruptive to organizational effectiveness, agencies are wise to invest resources in keeping their workers healthy. Preparatory training programs may provide workers with more realistic images of their profession, especially when workers have unrealistically high expectations about their jobs. For new hires, an introductory mentoring program can alleviate feeling overwhelmed.

Career development programs and counseling are useful, too, since many workers feel `locked in' to their careers. Job enlargement, job rotation, and job enrichment are useful preventative tools. Regular consultations and meetings between colleagues and superiors can provide much needed social support and the opportunity for communication about problematic issues. Conflict resolution classes, time-outs, and sabbaticals are useful. Also helpful are mutual aid groups formed by the workers themselves, rather than by their management (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1996).

Happy workers are productive workers. Ultimately, workers should feel they have a sustainable work load, choice and control, and a sense of community. They should receive recognition and reward, feel they are being treated with fairness, respect, and justice, and find meaning and value in their work (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). For tips on increasing your own resilience, see "Staying Emotionally Healthy".


Homan, M. (1994). Promoting Community Change: Making It Happen In the Real World. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Jayaratne, S., Chess, W. & D. Kunkel. (1986). Burnout: Its impact on child welfare workers and their spouses. Social Work, 31(1) 53-59.

Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. (1997). The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Schaufeli, W. & Buunk, B. (1996). Professional burnout. In M. Schabracq, J. Winnubst, and C. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of Work and Health Psychology. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 311-346.

1998 Jordan Institute for Families